How LED Light Therapy Is Used to Treat Skin Conditions
LED light therapy is becoming a more popular way to treat skin problems like acne—does it work?
LED light therapy: A noninvasive skin treatment
If you’re among the 50 million Americans with acne, you’ve probably heard about light-emitting diode (LED) light therapy as a treatment for skin woes. The popularity of LED devices stems from the belief that using them may help reduce the signs of aging, like wrinkles and dark spots, and skin conditions like acne.
LED light therapy sounds like a “magic bullet” for all your skin issues, but is it too good to be true?
Here’s what you need to know about LED light therapy, the types of skin conditions it’s used for, benefits, risks, and more.
What is LED light therapy?
LED is a common light therapy (a.k.a., phototherapy), used to treat a range of skin conditions, including acne, wound healing, psoriasis, and certain types of skin cancer, notes a review of studies published in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology in 2018.
In the visible light spectrum, different wavelengths of light produce different colors. Blue and red are the most used LED lights for skin conditions. Blue uses a shorter wavelength around 400 nanometers (nm), whereas red is a longer wavelength typically in the 600 and 700 nm range. These wavelengths penetrate the skin at different depths and therefore can target certain layers of the skin.
“LED uses specific wavelengths that deliver therapeutic results by rejuvenating skin at a cellular level,” says Julius Few, MD, a board-certified plastic surgeon at The Few Institute in Chicago.
LED light therapy for skin conditions
Here’s how LED light therapy might be used for skin conditions and how it compares to other types of light therapy.
Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition in which the body makes skin cells too quickly. Because of that, skin cells accumulate on the surface of the skin, leading to thick, scaly patches, often on the scalp, elbows, knees, and lower back. Psoriasis is most often treated with topical medication, or systemic oral or injectable therapies.
LED light therapy may be another option for patients. According to a study published in 2018, in the journal Lasers in Medical Science, blue LED light has been shown to reduce the growth of keratin-producing cells (keratin is a protein that makes up skin) and regulate immune responses. Likewise, red LED reduces inflammation. Both have been shown to be effective when used to treat psoriasis.
(Check out these home remedies for eczema and psoriasis.)
Rosacea is a skin condition characterized by facial redness and a tendency to blush or flush easily. You might also notice visible blood vessels, swelling, and acne-like breakouts, or skin thickening. There is some evidence that LED therapy might be an effective option for people with rosacea.
In a report published in 2020, in the Journal of Medical Case Reports, researchers looked at the effects of blue and red LED treatment in a young woman and an older man with rosacea. Using a combination of blue and red LED light was found to reduce burning, itching, redness, swelling, and acne-like bumps after just five sessions.
LED therapy might reduce inflammation, as well as impact the skin microbiome, two factors associated with rosacea. However, intense pulsed light or laser treatments are more common for rosacea patients interested in light treatment. (Here’s how laser and light therapy may help rosacea.)
When Richard Flowers, MD, a dermatologist with UVA Health in Charlottesville, Virginia, uses red or blue light treatments in clinical practice, it’s in the context of photodynamic therapy to address precancerous and cancerous lesions. During this procedure, he says, the doctor applies a photosensitizing agent (a light-sensitive topical medication) to the skin. This is then activated with red or blue light. The light prompts the formation of toxic free radicals that causes cells to die.
One place this may be used is in actinic keratosis, a rough, scaly lesion that develops in response to sun damage. These lesions are not cancer, but can turn into squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer.
Photodynamic therapy has been found to be effective in treating these lesions to reduce the risk of cancer. It also causes lesions to crust over and fall off, improving skin’s appearance, notes The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. There is some stinging and burning associated with treatment. (Here are the silent signs of skin cancer you shouldn’t ignore.)
However, keep in mind that it’s the light-activated medication that’s responsible for the good results, not the light itself.
Blue light therapy is one of the more common LED skin treatments. Blue light is believed to kill the bacteria that cause breakouts, therefore stopping the cycle of acne breakouts. But a review of 14 studies showed pretty ho-hum results. Some patients did say that their acne-prone skin mildly improved while using blue light, per one study published in 2019 in the Annals of Family Medicine.
This therapy requires a lengthy time commitment—30 to 60 minutes twice a day for four to five weeks. Still, these devices are popular.
While 35 LED light therapy acne masks received approval by the Food and Drug Administration between 2000 to 2018, only two had research trials to back them up, notes a study in a 2019 issue of the Dermatology Online Journal. The takeaway: These devices might be approved, but that only means they are found to be safe. Companies do not have to prove their skin-clearing claims.
Other light therapy options for skin
LED is not the only light therapy available for skin. There is also UV light therapy, which is often used for wound healing, collagen remodeling, and reducing inflammation in inflammatory skin conditions.
“UV light has been a lot more studied than LED for skin conditions,” Dr. Flowers says. When it comes to eczema and psoriasis, “I feel much more comfortable and confident using UV therapy,” he adds.
(Beware of the sources of UV light damage you’re ignoring.)
In addition, there is also BroadBand Light, which is a specific device. “This is a type of intense pulsed light device that uses light energy to safely and effectively address signs of skin aging, including sun and age spots, skin laxity, acne, and rosacea,” Dr. Flowers says. Compared to LED, BroadBand Light uses a higher level of energy.
LED tends to be more effective on smaller treatment areas, whereas BroadBand Light delivers best results when used over large areas, he explains. Talk to your doctor about what light therapy is best for your skin concern.
Safety and side effects of LED light therapy
LED light therapy is a noninvasive procedure that’s generally safe. Typically, there are no side effects. But, in rare cases, you may experience rashes, skin redness and tenderness, and inflammation. Not much is known about long-term effects.
Remember, talk with your dermatologist before you opt for LED light therapy as there are acne or skin medications like isotretinoin (Accutane) that can lead to light sensitivity.
How to use LED light therapy
You can opt to use LED light therapy at a dermatologist’s office or DIY at home (more on this later). If you go to a dermatologist, you’ll likely have a 20-minute session once a week for a maximum of 10 weeks, depending on the treated area. Following that initial treatment, you may need only occasional treatments.
During an LED light therapy session, your doctor will have you lie down under an LED light or use an LED wand. Typically, there is no recovery time following treatment.
LED light therapy at a doctor’s office can cost anywhere from $25 to $85. The price varies on where you live and if you’re doing complementary treatments with it.
A word about at-home LED devices
You can get LED treatments at your dermatologist’s office. However, there are also devices available for purchase to be used at home. These devices can range from as little as $25 to as much as $250.
If you have a skin condition that actively requires treatment, it’s important to check in with your dermatologist first before using one. If you see a new or changing spot on your skin, see your doctor, as at-home light treatment is not appropriate for treating a possibly cancerous lesion.
“There may be some benefit to these, but it’s likely pretty modest compared to other treatments we have,” Dr. Flowers says. “In clinical practice, we aren’t prescribing or strongly recommending these devices.”
Although these at-home devices are thought to be safe—they won’t give you a sunburn if you use them according to directions—Dr. Flowers is more apt to recommend other therapies. Those include topicals with active acne-fighting ingredients like benzoyl peroxide when treating skin conditions like acne. Or UV therapy under a doctor’s supervision when treating psoriasis or eczema.
Next, find out what exactly is green light therapy and how it works.
- Julius Few, MD, a board-certified plastic surgeon at The Few Institute in Chicago
- Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology: "Phototherapy with Light Emitting Diodes"
- Annals of Family Medicine: "Blue-Light Therapy for Acne Vulgaris: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- Dermatology Online Journal: "Over-the-counter light therapy for acne: a cross-sectional retrospective analysis"
- American Academy of Dermatology (AAD): "What is Psoriasis?"
- Lasers in Medical Science: "A clinical review of phototherapy for psoriasis"
- AAD: "Rosacea"
- AAD: "Skin Conditions By the Numbers"
- RealSelf: "What Does LED Therapy Cost?"
- Journal of Medical Case Reports: "Coupled blue and red light-emitting diodes therapy efficacy in patients with rosacea: two case reports"
- Richard Flowers, MD, a dermatologist with UVA Health in Charlottesville, Virginia